Testimony and the Dangers of Anti-Intellectualism

Rena Mainetti on August 1, 2023

Exvangelical is the catchall term for those who move away from American evangelicalism—often citing trauma and disillusionment as the reason for their deconstruction. For some, deconstruction means abandoning faith. Others experience a reconstruction, but they still struggle with institutional failings.

Journalist Jon Ward falls into the latter of these camps. In April, Ward released Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation, a spiritual memoir that recounts his exit from evangelicalism. Readers follow Ward through his childhood, sheltered from mainstream ‘secular’ culture, to feeling lost as a young adult, breaking from evangelicalism, and rebuilding the foundation for his faith.

By combining personal vulnerability and investigative journalism, Ward confronts the paradoxes and hypocrisies of his evangelical experience.

To Ward, the evangelical movement emphasizes an emotional anti-intellectualism. Ward grew up attending Covenant Life Church in Washington, D.C.’s Maryland suburbs. He describes encounters with powerful evangelical leaders like C.J. Mahaney, Louie Giglio, and Josh Harris. Mahaney was a spiritual mentor to Ward and the founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries. In 2012, Mahaney and other evangelical leaders at Sovereign Grace became embroiled in scandal for allegedly covering sexual abuse in the church.

Ward recalls how Mahany used emotion and spiritual experiences for control. From a young age, Ward was told to follow God’s will — “what is represented as God’s will is really just the views and preferences of those in charge,” he wrote. Ultimately, surrendering your will leads to surrendering your independence of thought, he argued.

Life in an insular Christian community impacted Ward’s ability to interpret complex crises outside his church bubble, he now believes. The HIV/AIDS crisis was viewed as an example of divine judgment for sinful behavior, while critical thought was seen as unhealthy questioning of God. Charismatic services also overemphasized emotional experience—believing they could conjure God through skillful music and dark lights. Ward identifies the root of evangelical anti-intellectualism as a spiritual experience of the heart, as opposed to the head. Ultimately, this hyper-spiritualized worldview is rooted in self-absorbed experiences.

Ward argues that power combined with viewing the church as a persecuted minority created the foundation for Evangelical voters’ embrace of Donald Trump. When we let politics drive theology, we risk placing our hope in a political figure and seeing our opponents as ‘the other’ instead of uniquely human.

Some readers will appreciate Ward’s criticism of Trump, but he seems to adopt the same moral certainty he condemned from his childhood. Ward sees Evangelical Trump voters as morally tainted, recounting how the Trump era fostered contempt within his family. However, Ward admits that he “often burned too hot” during the Trump years. But his almost black-and-white stance on Trump is a reminder: We’ll always be tainted by our inherent biases, despite attempts to be open-minded.

Those who grew up in an Evangelical subculture will resonate with Ward’s story. Ward’s work is less about how the Evangelical movement failed a generation, but about how it failed him personally. We’re different from when we attended Sunday school, watched Veggie Tales (at least for my generation), and lived with our parents. Looking back, we can accept there were issues with what we were taught. But we shouldn’t let tensions with our past distort a grace that met us at a different time.

To navigate our polarized world is a daunting task. Walking with Christ doesn’t mean avoidance of people who think differently, prioritizing emotion over critical thought, and escaping hardships through spiritual experiences. The charismatic low-church experience is often spontaneous and based on the whims of the pastor and worship leaders—meaning there is little-to-no vetting. Instead, we should lean into the liturgies, creeds, and prayers that generations of Christians shaped and tested.

Ward’s work stands as a testament to the power of nuance, where the pursuit of truth becomes an act of empathy and compassion. But it also diagnoses the question of why so many people subscribe to the “Exvangelical” movement. Christianity is a worldview that requires intellectual nurturing and development beginning at childhood. Christians who emphasize emotion and modern America over historical Christianity and tested truths stand on a foundation of sand. As the parable illustrates, when the rain, wind, and floods come, only the house built on the rock prevails.

  1. Comment by Dan W on August 1, 2023 at 6:56 am

    A preacher’s kid (Ward) becomes disillusioned with his parents church, and hates Trump.

  2. Comment by Sigmagoose on August 1, 2023 at 9:47 am

    As a Generation Xer here, sitting at the crossroads of the Boomers and Millennials and beyond, it frustrates me to no end to here statements such as this : Looking back, we can accept there were issues with what we were taught. But we shouldn’t let tensions with our past distort…” Our relationships? Our politics? Our society? The things that matter most?

    There are times that I want to say to my elders…the double standards (which have always been present in American life), is what your children are angry about. The “do as I say, not as a do”, having higher standards of conduct for people outside the circle of influence than in, and the building of wealth no matter how it disadvantages others message no longer resonates. Your children are angry because they can see thru the thin religious dressing, the artificial piety, the lack of grace and totally incongruent values and they are calling you out on it.

    To the youth I would say this…destroying yourself in order to spite your elders only hurts you in the long run. Yes, Christianity has been subverted and misused by both the conservatives and liberals alike. It has caused all sorts of chaos in our society since the dominant religious tribes in our country have distorted the tenants of the faith into political and moralistic causes and it just gives us headaches and heartaches. Pat answers no longer will do for our age. You deserve more than this, but the answer is not revolution or rebellion. Christ points us to a different way.

    If both sides were willing to admit their faults and repent, MAYBE we might get somewhere. However, looking around and gauging the state of things, I highly doubt that is going to happen. We are just going to continue doubling down in our own self righteousness (and maybe splitting the nation permanently) than coming together to work for peace and justice in our society.

  3. Comment by Richard Mouw on August 1, 2023 at 10:55 am

    Thanks so much, Rena. Wise thoughts. Strength to you on your journey!

  4. Comment by David on August 1, 2023 at 11:50 am

    In India, Modi, the PM and head of a Hindu religious party has removed the mention of evolution from high school curriculums. He also had the periodic table of the elements, a seemingly inoffensive item, removed as well. Anti-science stances benefit no one.

  5. Comment by Retired and Discouraged on August 1, 2023 at 4:31 pm

    Some of these comments are so discouraging I wonder why I was a minister for so long. I guess I wasted my time a s a conservative/traditional/evangelical Christian minister and a political conservative.

    I poured my heart and soul into serving Christ and others and now people like me are the ones who ‘lived a life of ‘double standards’ and have to repent, and who supposedly had higher standards for others than myself; what utter garbage.

    What were some of you taught that was so hypocritical you condemn the people before you? What of Christianity was subverted and misused by conservative people that harmed the faith in the recent past? I’d like to hear details of the accusation, because this sound like politics, not theology or practice of the faith.

    We are all sinners, no generation of Christians are perfect, and we should all confess our sinfulness and ask for forgiveness. But what I am reading here suggests that leftist politics and worldviews have blinded some people to reality. What a sad book and comments here.

  6. Comment by Tom on August 1, 2023 at 5:34 pm

    “To Ward, the evangelical movement emphasizes an emotional anti-intellectualism.”

    Well, how nice for him. The Christian faith, since it begins with an omniscient God, whose intellect far, far surpasses anything we can come up with, is the pinnacle of intellectualism. If you want an intellectual basis for the faith, begin with the Bible and see what Jesus said. Then read some truly intellectual Christians. Try Justin or Augustine. Or Calvin. Or Sir Isaac Newton (recently discovered notes) or John Milton.

    Disclosure: I am an evangelical Christian with degrees from Yale (BA) and Harvard (MBA.) I didn’t find anything at either of those institutions that compares with the intellect, knowledge, and wisdom of God.

    If the quotes attributed to him are representative, Mr. Ward’s experience is very parochial and shallow. Look around you, Mr. Ward!

  7. Comment by Jun Valmores on August 3, 2023 at 3:01 am

    Thanks Rena for this. My favorite line: “(we) shouldn’t let tensions with our past distort a grace that met us at a different time.”

  8. Comment by Search4Truth on August 5, 2023 at 3:43 pm

    Maybe I am not clear on the definition of some words, but to say that Christianity is based on emotionalism and not intellectualism, questions the intelligence of some of the 20th centuries greatest minds like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis to name a few.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.